OP-ED: The Criminal Injustice System

Knowledge Westbrooks currently lives in the Red Hook Houses in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
(Photo credit: Tdorante10, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

I grew up in East New York, Brooklyn. In the early 2000s, safety from street violence and police violence seemed too much to ask for. As the most dangerous place to live in Brooklyn, some members of my community opted to join gangs for protection. This included protection from the largest gang in America, the NYPD.

There are systematic effects on the public safety of neighborhoods like mine. Fathers of Black and brown children are targeted by the NYPD. Through aggressive enforcement and incarceration, New York City believes it can maintain better control of what they may see as “self destructive ghettos.” However, these plans and systems keep the members of these communities anything but safe. 

Jails are made for rehabilitation; however, these facilities do the opposite and are a major public safety concern. Rikers Island has had major humanitarian issues that date back years. Inmates are regularly treated like animals; with no access to regular healthcare. The facilities at Rikers, the city’s primary jailing site, are crumbling from mold and building decay. In 2020, 14 inmates died due to the conditions. Four of them ended their own lives. Just halfway through 2022, 11 people have already died, most recently 31-year old Elijah Muhammad and 34-year old Michael Lopez.

There are also specific harms for our elders and our youth. Rikers Island is no place for the elderly. The high-stress environment seems to make the elderly age faster. A few states prevent putting kids in adult correctional facilities or penitentiaries. Still, others permit minors to be detained in adult jails and prisons where they are at the most elevated chance of being physically attacked. A large number of minors have been attacked, assaulted, and subsequently damaged in these facilities. 

The damage done to these young people comes back with them to their school, home, and the community. At the middle school where I work, there are police officers on standby at all times. When there is a fight, argument or any type of altercation, police treat students like they are criminals. They are detained in a way that you would never think to see because these children are aged 11 through 14. Some are taken into custody and put into bookings for a few days with strangers and sometimes violent people. Imagine being scared, alone, and in this type of hostile environment. Things like this stay with young people forever.

 As a Success Mentor (trained mentors for small groups of students), I get a chance to see troubled youth in peer mediation groups and counseling. However, by the time these kids are getting to these groups, they are shaken with paranoia and feel a need to over-protect themselves. They have taken their experiences from being locked up and transferred it to their neighborhood because they feel as though the world may be like that everywhere. Police and jails are supposed to protect and rehabilitate, but they instead perpetuate a sense of fear and a need for violence.

In the police, I see adults that are taking advantage of things that they would never do to their own children, all because of a badge. A 2017 state by state survey conducted by Strategies For Youth found that states have virtually no role in setting developmentally appropriate and trauma-informed training standards to prepare police recruits for their future interactions with youth. It shows. Does the NYPD academy train its officers in only one type of way or is there separate training for how to deal with youth?

On May 26, 2022, an LAPD officer named Houston Tipping sustained injuries during training because they were simulating a “mob.” Tipping died three days later from his injuries because he was hit repeatedly in the head. They violated one of their very own. If they can do this to a peer and coworker, how can they expect us to ever feel like they are here for our safety? Do large police budgets provide for rigorous training on how to behave under pressure or how to deal with mentally disabled people and traumatized youth?  

Where I’m from, our human and civil rights are the collateral damage we pay for our so-called criminal justice system.

Knowledge Westbrooks is a 24-year-old public safety organizer for the Red Hook Initiative and a member of the Red Hook Art project. He lives in Brooklyn in the Red Hook Houses.

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